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For Homeless Youth in Northern Kentucky, Director Has Plenty of Teachable Moments

Despite her 36 years of service, Connie Freking did not choose the line of work that’s become her career and her passion.

“I graduated when there weren’t a lot of jobs available for teachers,” said Freking, who graduated from Xavier University with a degree in teaching.

A friend referred her to the Comprehensive Care Center in Lexington. “I started out as a recreation therapist in a community center, working with kids who huff gas and paint to get high,” she recalled.

After two years as a recreation therapist, the center asked Freking to come on to the staff as a counselor, starting a career for the benefit of at-risk youth that continues to this day.

That was in 1979. Freking is now the director of youth services for the Brighton Center, a community center in Newport’s inner city Westside neighborhood with a wide range of support services for families in need. Freking’s focus is helping homeless and runaway youth, and she does so with a fierce dedication and love for the children.

“It’s why I do what I do,” said Freking, describing the satisfaction she feels when a youth who has been through her program comes back years later, often in a stable household, with a job and aspirations to complete a college education. “It feels like I have grandchildren.”

These “grandchildren” often meet Freking for the first time in the Homeward Bound Shelter. The 16-bed shelter is the home of Youth Services for the Brighton Center, and the only homeless shelter for children ages 12-17 in Northern Kentucky.

The shelter does not feel like one. Wood paneling covers the walls of the dorms where youth sleep, with a cubby where they may keep their personal belongings. There are private rooms for residents who are well behaved and desire them. There is a fully stocked computer room, living rooms, video games, and many books for the children to read. Children are asked to clean their own rooms and bathrooms, in order to provide a sense of responsibility and ownership. In a well-stocked kitchen, the children are asked to help prepare the meals that they eat, and are free to snack from the pantry during approved hours.

From July to October of 2012, the shelter received a 36 percent increase in youth on the street coming in for shelter care. Although Freking says the demand has declined slightly in the months since then, it is still up, at 28 percent. Freking believes the rise comes from children being asked to leave their homes due to family dynamics or economic hardship.

“We’re seeing a lot of domestic violence, possibly between the child and a step-parent or significant other of their parent who has custody of them,” said Freking of children who choose to leave their homes. “They get tired of that environment.”

Freking believes homeless and runaway youth today face more obstacles than they have at any other time in her career. Although there are children in the shelter who have experimented with drugs, Freking says that most of the children in the shelter are motivated by the difficulties of their home life to avoid a cycle of substance abuse.

“They come with the mindset, ‘I don’t want to be like my parent,’” said Freking. “We try to educate them to avoid that harm. We do a lot of harm-reduction education around here.”

Much of this education revolves around what Freking likes to call “teachable moments,” addressing issues and conflicts within the shelter by confronting them with structured programs that asks the youth to confront and reconsider the lack of understanding or miscommunication that lead to their problem.

Every child must read and sign a handbook on mutual respect and tolerance before they are admitted to the shelter. When the terms and conditions of this handbook are violated, Freking often brings in outside speakers to talk to the children.

“Our youth sometimes respond better when we bring in someone from the outside,” said Freking of the outside groups. “They think that since we are here all the time, we say things because we have to say them. So to hear someone from outside the shelter say it, it has a better impact.”

The core lesson Freking wants children to take away from the shelter is that there are not punishments, but consequences for their actions. This is especially true of youth in the Transitional Living Program, which helps youth ages 18-24 to find housing, employment and education.

“At that older age, hopefully the kids start to learn that these consequences occur naturally from their actions, like if you go out and spend all your money on drinking and partying, you can’t pay your phone bill, so you don’t have a phone for a month,” said Jarrett Spisak, Street Outreach Supervisor for the Homeward Bound Shelter. “We don’t come down on them for those mistakes. We just move on from where they are.”

The Transitional Living Program provides vital support for youth who age out of the Homeward Bound Shelter. After their eighteenth birthday they can no longer live at the shelter, and adult shelters are often unsafe for homeless young adults, who are susceptible to being preyed on by older, chronic homeless.

Transitional living is also vital for youth who may have a home to return to, but are worried of following in the footsteps of poverty and abuse set out before them. Freking tells the story of a young man who moved with his parents from Puerto Rico to the United States in order to severe ties with a family tradition of drug trafficking and gun violence. Unfortunately, the young man couldn’t escape his family.

“They followed him up here,” said Freking, explaining both the allure of family and money that haunted the child. “He was almost on the path of reaching out for that fast dollar bill through drug selling and gang involvement. He was a child who never thought he would graduate from high school.”

The child took shelter at Homeward Bound, and after three months at the shelter the child was doing so well in chemistry, that his teacher asked him to reach out to other Hispanic students who were struggling in chemistry and to help them.

“This was someone from the outside who believed in him,” Freking said of the influence the chemistry teacher had on the student. “It did wonders for his leadership, to the point that he graduated, and also received a chemistry award.

Freking still keeps in contact with the young man. An active participant in the Transitional Living Program, he currently has a job, an apartment, and is taking classes at Gateway Community College.

“When he told his story to the board, they couldn’t believe it. They were in tears,” said Freking. “He told them that this was the first time that anyone had every believed in him.”

Northern Kentucky University student John Flaherty wrote this story as part of a class assignment for Journalism 340: Feature Writing, taught by Dr. Zach Hart. The class participated in NKU’s Project Hope: The 505 Initiative, a program designed to connect NKU classes to Newport’s Westside Neighborhood. Classes are helping write local history, evaluate health needs, tutor at-risk kids and start a community book-lending network. The journalism class, which partnered with KyForward, helped tell the neighborhood story. A panel of journalists reviewed the stories written for Hart’s class and selected Flaherty’s for publication.

Photo: Connie Freking (Erin Mullins for The Northerner)